Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America

By James Axtell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Europeans, Indians, and the Age of Discovery in American History Textbooks

SCHOLARS SOMETIMES WIND UP IN HOT WATER INADVERtently; occasionally they dive in headfirst. At the December 1986 meeting of the American Historical Association, I took the plunge on behalf of the Columbus Quincentenary Committee. We had decided to pave the way for a sensible, reflective commemoration of 1492 by taking stock of what educated Americans were apt to know about Columbus and the age of mutual discovery he launched in the Americas. College textbooks seemed the likeliest source of public knowledge because they dominated introductory history courses in most universities, and the Admiral and his age were not the stuff of the mass media except every fifty years. So I undertook a one-man survey of the leading textbooks, with the following results.

When the report was published in the American Historical Review the following June, it caused a brief but audible rustling in the dovecotes of academe and publishing. 1 Two historians at the University of California-Santa Barbara separately wrote letters to the editor of the AHR, who published them in the February 1988 issue with my reply. Wilbur Jacobs argued that "the Black Legend is in many respects an accurate interpretation of history," which I continue to deny. Robert Kelley, the author of one of the textbooks I critiqued, sought largely to defend the status quo by

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